The documentary about Matipwili, Tanzania and Devergy

I’ve been talking about how I want to make documentaries for over five years. Or more. In fact, the reason I moved to Amsterdam back in 2008 was to do just that: I wanted to start over in my career, to work on projects I cared about, to get involved with a different type of work community that I didn’t really feel around me in NYC. Then I accidentally ended up working in advertising (oops). Which was/is great, don’t get me wrong. Advertising was what allowed me to live and work legally in Amsterdam, it paid the bills, and I learned a lot. Stumbling into freelancing was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

But now, finally, finally I can say I started and finished a project that I fully believe in. 100000%. I went to Matipwili, Tanzania and followed Devergy around for 3 weeks as they started their first pilot village, and hooked up a poor, rural community to a solar energy grid. You can see it on youtube and there’s more content on their site.

Phone charging in Matipwili (before Devergy)

Before Devergy built their grid, In order for the residents to keep their phones charged they would bring them to a small store than had solar electricity. There they paid a fee to charge their phones to a full battery.

It’s a 13 minute video. It will never going to be up on the big screen in a movie theater, but I know they’re going to project it on a wall in Matipwili, Tanzania, and that is an outstanding feeling.

I loved being on facebook and twitter and youtube and email yesterday. I love seeing people share the video and liking it and hearing the reactions. I love that Devergy is finally getting some attention for all the good stuff they’ve done over the past couple years. I love that the sound is in sync. Actually, I just love that the sound works. You know what’s kinda hard? Using a DSLR for filmmaking and a separate audio recorder/mic and being only one person. I literally did not have enough hands to focus, hold the camera, check sound levels, etc. So I trained everyone in Matipwili on how to be a sound person (if someone around me spoke a small amount of english, I promise you they held that shotgun mic), which was ridiculous as I barely had any idea how to work the equipment myself. However, it worked. I am still stunned about that.

Filmmaking in Matipwili

The kids were very eager to “help” and see all the camera and sound equipment

It feels amazing that some of the people in Matipwili have managed to see the video as well, and they like it, and they’re super proud. I had wondered about that back when I was there – there I was all up in these people’s lives, asking them some pretty personal questions sometimes pertaining to, you know, how poor they are. I wondered if I’d be able to make a movie that shows them with dignity. I wanted to do that because that’s what I saw. Yes, they are poor, no question about that. They eat the same thing every day, there’s no running water, many people live in shack-like houses, there are no good roads connecting the village to the city, etc. But they’re also just normal people. Some really liked to fix themselves up before I filmed them, some didn’t really care. They work, the kids go to school, and they live a rural-village kind of life. There’s gossip, politics, babies, weddings, all of it.

Matipwili residents

Matipwili residents

The way I felt after spending time there was that poverty is simply no longer a reason for people to not have access to electricity, when the electricity can come from the sun. I mean, if being poor is no longer a reason to not have a phone or access to the internet (via mobile apps), why not electricity? Of course, these are not the poorest of the poor people in the world. The truly destitute are those who don’t have enough to eat at night, who have no shelter. But in Matipwili, even with $1-2 a day, that is sufficient income to have shelter, food, clothes, a phone, and enough money to buy batteries/kerosene. Some people in the village already had TVs and radios and appliances, just sitting there not being used, because they were so ready to have electricity.

I think I portrayed the village as accurately as possible. it’s nowhere near the whole story, but for someone who was there for 3 weeks, the documentary is what I saw. I did not include all the boredom that comes with being in a small village all day, which I also think is a very real part of poverty as well – boredom, monotony.

I would be proud to show it to anyone from Matipwili or anywhere in Tanzania, because it’s real. The people aren’t portrayed any more or less than exactly the way they are.

Playing checkers with bottle caps

Playing checkers with bottle caps

It’s finally done. The pre-production happened in Amsterdam, it was shot in Tanzania, and the post-production all took place in Mexico. I do really, really like my life.

I’m back from Tanzania and another year older

It appears I am 33 years old! I woke up yesterday to someone ringing the doorbell and delivering me a dozen red roses, along with a note that says “Happy birthday, my love.” Enrique will be back in Amsterdam in a couple weeks, and I can’t wait.

After the whole Tanzania trip (I got home a few days ago), I was so very, very tired. Tired psychically and emotionally and mentally and in every possible way. I did some pretty amazing things – I rode on the back of a motorbike with all my stuff through the pouring rain, passing by some of the most beautiful landscape I ever saw, and that was the first day. Later in the trip, on another motorbike ride to the sea, we passed by giraffes! Really huge giraffes, just hanging out, eatin’ trees! Amazing. I learned how to use my camera, I think. I learned how to use my sound equipment. I interviewed people and learned how to be a “documentary filmmaker.” I hope. (update: the finished film is here)

Getting to Matipwili from Dar Es Salaam

Getting to Matipwili from Dar Es Salaam – and my first time on a motorbike. There were no real roads for a stretch of the journey, so this was my most practical way in.

My room in Matipwili

This is where I slept. The guest house had about 8 rooms, and it was pretty comfortable. My neighbors, the roosters, woke up a bit earlier than me though…

Turns out "I'd rather go without than drink instant coffee" is total bullshit. After 7 days without, this instant coffee was the best-tasting thing in the world.

Turns out “I’d rather go without than drink instant coffee” is total bullshit. After 7 days without, this instant coffee was the best-tasting thing in the world.

I used an outdoor squat toilet every day, and showered with a bucket of (cold) water from the river. I didn’t wash my hair for three weeks. I ate the same food every day, and the food was… well, the food wasn’t bad, nor was it good. It was pretty bland. there were about 5-6 different dishes I ate over the course of three weeks. Breakfast was some kind of fried bread thing – sometimes a crepe-like object (without sugar, jam, etc), sometimes a fried ball that had rice inside. Lunch was always white rice, beans, and green vegetables. Except twice, when we had meat. Dinner was almost always one egg on top of potatoes.

Matipwili, Tanzania

Matipwili, Tanzania

I went to bed every night as early as I could. it was pitch black every day by 6.45pm, and i would try to be laying down in bed by 11pm, because the morning started around 6.30am. well, the morning officially started at 6.30am, though the chickens that lived 3 inches from my window woke up every day around 4am, which meant I was also waking up at 4. I didn’t have any problems falling asleep – I would pass out after 10 minutes. Honestly if there were no chickens, I would have slept with no problems the whole time.

I had no health problems at all, not even a headache. Matipwilli was without a doubt the least hygienic place I ever stayed and ate. There is no concept of a trash can or a trash collection, so trash is just simply all over the ground. Trash like batteries and kerosene cans is everywhere, including in people’s gardens. The chickens that run all over the village love to eat this trash, and I can tell you, I ate chicken a few times. Everything I ate came from that very village, and it was served wrapped in dirty newspaper that was put together by someone who doesn’t wash their hands with soap and doesn’t use toilet paper when they go to the bathroom. But the human body is a pretty amazing thing, and really, the earth is a pretty amazing, resilient thing. Everything growing like crazy, crops everywhere. Even though the people living there treat the earth “badly” (from a western POV) by throwing toxic trash on the ground, the earth itself seems fine. Outside of the immediate village area, everything was absolutely stunningly beautiful. so, so green. Everything – trees, plants, thorns, bugs, animals – everything is bigger in Africa. There were times I felt like my eyes didn’t have the training to see the things I was seeing, it was just so… expansive. The most opposite place of the Netherlands I’ve ever been.

The earth seems to go on forever. This was taken about 20km outside of Matipwili.

The earth seems to go on forever. This was taken about 20km outside of Matipwili.

Just seemed that everything was bigger in Africa (my hand is there for scale).

Just seemed that everything was bigger in Africa (my hand is there for scale).

Taken from a motorbike, so it's a terrible photo - but look! A giraffe!

Taken from a motorbike, so it’s a terrible photo – but look! A giraffe!

It’s been over a week since I’ve been back in Amsterdam. I love eating good food again, walking on actual roads instead of dirt or mud, and being able to shower and drink water from the tap. But I think about Matipwili all the time, and I miss the people I got to know there. I was able to form a relationship with some of the people in the village. After the villagers realized that yes, seriously, I was staying and sleeping and eating in Matipwilli for weeks and weeks, they treated me (and the Devergy guys) normally. We stopped getting stares and attention from the adults, in fact, they wanted to chat, talk, hang out, anything. It’s like any other small village anywhere in the world, in one respect: outsiders seem suspicious. Like “yeah, alright whitey, welcome to rural Tanzania, have fun, take some pictures, seeya.” Honestly in the tiny town i grew up in, if I saw tourists from the city I felt the same way. “yeah yeah, take some pictures of trees and leaves, must be sooo interesting” But after a bit of time, everything started to seem more normal.

Matipwili residents

Matipwili residents

Matipwili residents

Matipwili residents

The first few days everyone was so curious about my tattoos, but after day three? No one said anything. I wasn’t the only person there with nostril piercings or earrings. They thought my hair – long, straight, and black hair – was the most exotic thing about me, they never saw such long, black hair on a white person before, only Chinese. The little kids were amazing. Curious, outgoing, unafraid. They loved running up to me and my friends and holding our hands and would do pretty much anything they could do to get our attention.

That little girl on the right was one of my favorites, and a total camera hog.

That little girl on the right was one of my favorites, and a total camera hog.

Now that the trip is over and I’m back home, I’m pretty sick (coughing, sneezing, the works). I’m eager to see my boyfriend again. I want to start working but I’m having a hard time getting started and finding motivation, but that’s mainly because I’m so sick. So I’m going to make some tea and watch Mad Men and think about Matipwili and¬† the future and wish for chicken soup to appear at my door.

Hello Tanzania!

One week from now, I will be en route to Matipwili, a small village in Tanzania, about 3 hours (approx) from Dar Es Salaam, the capital city. I leave Amsterdam on the 5th of May at 7am and arrive at 8pm – such a strange concept for me to take such a long flight, but only go through a one hour time difference (it’s one hour ahead of Amsterdam). When I arrive, I’ll spend one night by myself in a hostel in Dar. On Sunday the 6th I’ll make my way by bus and then some other form of transportation I haven’t figured out yet to Matipwili. If you look up Matipwili in google maps you won’t find it – or at least I haven’t been able to – but it’s not too far from Bagamoyo. I’m not sure what “not too far” means, but I’m guessing 1-2 hours. It’s also quite close to the Kisampa camp, which is a supposedly beautiful area with a super nice eco-lodge thing set up that tourists/volunteers/workers usually stay at if they’re looking for a “village experience” not too far from Dar, or if they’re doing volunteer work in Matipwili.

I’m going to document something. I hesitate to say I’m going to make a documentary, but I’m going with a camera, sound equipment, etc., for the purposes of using them to document what Devergy is doing, and what they’re doing is setting up a solar electrical system in this very poor, rural village that will provide people with very inexpensive solar energy. The folks in Matipwili live on about $1-2 per day and currently spend a little money every day for candles, batteries, or kerosene for lighting. Devergy¬† will be able to offer solar energy to the villagers for the same amount of money they currently spend on other forms of lighting, and it’s hopefully going to transform their lives. I helped put together a short video to explain the concept, and now they’re finally ready to go off and really do the first village (they will have three pilot villages this year, and hopefully start real operations next year). Devergy has been at work for about 2 years so far, so this is really exciting. Seeing what happens in the first village and capturing that footage and turning it into videos that can show people what they’re up to is my job. While I’m a pretty good agency producer, and a decent enough line producer, it’s been a long time since I’ve considered myself any kind of real filmmaker. This is a huge leap out of my comfort zone, but it’s the leap I’ve been hoping to make for five years or so, and I’m super excited/nervous to be able to do it.

Professional goals aside, I can’t believe I’m going to Africa for the first time, and I’m making the journey by myself, and I’m going to spend 19 nights sleeping in a very poor, very rural village with no running water or electricity or toilets or anything of that nature. It’s going to be warm (low-to-high 80’s during the day, low 70’s at night) and very humid – supposedly it’s rainy season, but it hasn’t been raining yet, even though it’s predicted every day. It’s practically a guarantee that I’ll have “stomach issues,” though they probably won’t be serious, but I’ve never had prolonged days of stomach issues without access to a toilet. The only memorable time that happened was in Romania, and the journey from Sibiu to Budapest (by bus and overnight train) was, well, I still remember that overnight train bathroom clearly, and that was five-six years ago. And still, that was only one night, maybe 12-16 hours that I wasn’t able to use a “normal” bathroom.

We’re going to be living on a daylight kind of schedule, which means up at sunrise and sleep when it’s dark. We can’t depend on internet access, and while we will probably be able to get a connection strong enough to send email, I certainly won’t be able to skype with E. using video.

It’s so hard to figure out what this is going to be like, I have no frame of reference for how all this might feel. After my trip through Mexico I can now remember what hot weather and mosquitoes feel like, and I did get used to going to bed very early and waking up around 7am (while I was in Mazunte, which is the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed). But there I could wear a bathing suit all day and swim, whereas Matipwili isn’t on a beach. The things I’m most nervous about are A) lack of showers in a hot & humid climate and B) lack of toilets. I know I’m just going to have to deal with both of those things, but man, both of those things are going to be a big deal.

I bought some new clothes, including both a white and a purple shirt. I’m trying, really, to not bring black shirts (my pants are so far all black), but it’s hard without buying a new wardrobe. To keep my backpack as light as possible I’m only bringing about 6 shirts anyway. I need to buy a hat, and DEET, and a flashlight… but most importantly, now I have to go do ten thousand camera tests in the next week. I just spent thousands of dollars (while in NYC) on camera equipment and there’s still so much I don’t know how to use.